Photo: Veronica Tay

Poh Khim Yin’s Unilever experience started in China, where she oversaw local marketing for foods. Four years later, in 2010, she had ascended to the role of global brand director for Lifebuoy. This trajectory illustrates Unilever’s deliberate and strategic approach to talent development. Her path through diverse roles and markets has been a metamorphic one, marked by a dedication to purpose-driven initiatives.

Reflecting on her experience, Poh, in her 40s, states, “The wealth of knowledge, expertise, and skills I’ve gathered have been instrumental in my leadership of global initiatives.” This is where Unilever distinguishes itself by investing in the holistic development of its talents, providing them with the skills and insights necessary to navigate an ever-changing global business landscape.

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A triad of global partnerships

Central to Unilever’s strategy are global talent exchanges, epitomised by programmes like the Future Leaders Programme. Poh is a fervent advocate of these initiatives, emphasising that they offer young graduates the opportunity to gain hands-on experience across diverse functions and markets. She says, “There is no substitute for immersing oneself in the heart of a market to gain a deep understanding of its culture, nuances, and communities.”

Unilever’s pledge to social responsibility, exemplified by Lifebuoy’s health and hygiene focus, aligns seamlessly with its talent development strategy. Poh underscores that embedding purpose into every aspect of the company, from strategy to product development,

fosters a culture of continuous learning and innovation. “Young talents today are more invested in jobs that align with their own purpose,” she observes.

A striking facet of Unilever’s talent development approach is its strategic collaborations with NGOs for education campaigns. Poh points to the enduring partnership with Lifebuoy as an example of how purpose-driven alliances can shape future global leaders.

Through these collaborations, Unilever employees gain cross-functional expertise beyond their core roles and develop a global mindset, vital attributes of a multinational corporation.

Fostering success

For companies seeking to emulate Unilever’s success, she stresses the importance of creating an inclusive environment where talent can flourish and encourages a culture of continuous learning and development. “The work environment should be a ‘fail-safe’

space, where talents feel comfortable developing their skills but also encourage them to venture beyond their comfort zones.” 

Leadership support, too, is crucial, she notes, as leaders set the tone for the entire organisation by embracing a growth mindset and valuing diverse perspectives. 

In nurturing local talents for global roles, there are inevitably hurdles to overcome. However, Unilever takes a proactive approach to addressing these obstacles, prioritising mentorship and offering robust guidance and support to its talents as they navigate their roles. Poh acknowledges that stepping out of one’s comfort zone can be daunting, but she highlights that the experiences gained often lead to valuable lessons and personal growth.

Photo: Veronica Tay

The mother of two offers a personal nugget of wisdom from her professional voyage — to actively venture beyond your comfort zone — urging: “Don’t wait for the chance to land on your laps. Especially earlier in your career, it will mould you in ways that you would never have imagined.

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“(Do) not shy away from new challenges or unfamiliar territory, as they often serve as gateways to unexpected yet enriching opportunities,” she says, adding that when such an opportunity does present itself, nurturing a mindset characterised by openness, adaptability, a commitment to ongoing learning, and continuous development becomes nothing short of indispensable.

As we look ahead, Unilever’s vision for talent development remains firmly rooted in purposefulness. Poh envisions talents who not only possess essential skills but also a deep sense of responsibility to make a positive impact on society and the environment. Unilever’s holistic approach to talent development ensures that its talents are not only prepared for global roles but are also equipped to drive meaningful change. 

As she aptly puts it, “Empowering individuals with a higher purpose and nurturing their skills to effect positive change — this is the essence of Unilever’s vision for the future, and it’s a path we should all aspire to tread.”